John Kear: The upset king

Batley Bulldogs are one of the early season pace setters in the Championship, under the veteran stewardship of one of rugby league’s greatest coaches, John Kear.

Given Batley’s form so far in 2016, with them being unbeaten in their last four matches with one draw and three victories, it was perhaps not a surprise that Kear has been enticed to Super League once again by his former club Wakefield Wildcats.

Trinity announced this week that Kear would be their director of rugby in 2017, helping new coach Chris Chester.

Love Rugby League caught up with Kear this week to look at the great man’s career, and how he has turned Batley into early season contenders.

“Basically, it’s a matter of focus and intensity, and a quality preseason effort from the players,” he explained, when asked what the secret was to the Bulldog’s new season surge.

“We always felt that round one would be a defining round for us, playing Leigh.

“We managed to take advantage, perhaps, of the turmoil in the Leigh ranks, and turn up with a good performance ourselves.

“What’s happened since then is that confidence and self-belief have grown, and after a pretty tough first quarter of the season, they’ve come out in a pretty healthy state.”

One of Kear’s iconic coaching triumphs was winning the Challenge Cup with Sheffield Eagles in 1998 at Wembley.

There is a Sheffield influence on his Batley team this season, in the shape of Pat Walker and Dominic Brambani, two seasoned halfbacks who both enjoyed successful spells with the Eagles in recent times.

“They’ve been tremendous, and James Davey as well,” he said.

“I know James has only played about nine minutes for us because of his injury!

“But they’ve certainly helped off the field, there’s a certain air of professionalism about them – that’s certainly helped as they’ve been integrated as senior players.

“So they’ve been a massive help, but generally the recruitment has been of a high standard.

“The board deserves some plaudits for that, because we’ve brought Dave Scott and Danny Cowling in from Doncaster, and they’ve proved very valuable acquisitions.

“Obviously, we needed a strike centre, and we’ve got Chris Ulugia as well.

“So the signings have been well thought-out, and the board have backed the coaching staff with regard to that.”

Kear’s rugby league journey began when he was a child who lived little more than long drop kick from Castleford, the club for whom he would later play as a winger.

“I started playing when I was seven years old,” he said.

“It was in the Castleford area. I went to Wheldon Lane Primary school, and that was my first taste of it.

“It was an under-11 team, and that was what really gave me the interest.

“But I lived down Wheldon Lane – 33, Wheldon Road it was – so I used to nip along to Castleford and watch them train.

“I used to marvel at people like Alan Hardisty and Keith Hepworth, and I just developed a love for the game from that.”

Kear would later grace the Cas colours from 1978 until 1988, playing 133 games and scoring 37 tries.

But it is collective success with his hometown club of which he is most proud, rather than any particular individual achievement.

“Generally, it was playing in a really good Castleford team,” he said.

“I thought in that era that Cas were amongst the elite really.

“I know that Widnes and the two Hull teams tended to dominate trophywise, but Cas had a pretty good spell there as well.

“I was fortunate enough to play in two Challenge Cup semi-finals, I played in the 1984 Premiership final, the 1983 Yorkshire Cup final, so there were some good times there, and I played in some big games.

“Also during my playing career, I played against people like Wally Lewis and Peter Sterling.”

 

 

Given those Cas connections, it may surprise some that one of Kear’s most glorious moments as a coach was saving Wakefield from relegation in 2006.

Saving Trinity obviously consigned Castleford to the second tier after the Wildcats secured four wins from their last six games.

Long before then, Kear was drawn into coaching because he felt it was the perfect complement to his profession of teaching.

“I trained as a teacher, and I was a teacher while I was playing, because obviously it was part-time when I played,” he explained.

“I feel that teaching and coaching are very similar, in that what you’re trying to do is improve individuals and set up and environment that allows learning and progression.

“I saw it as a natural progression. I was fortunate enough to get a chance at Castleford, being a conditioner initially, and then reserve team coach.

“It’s progressed from there, and I’ve loved every minute.”

 

The Sheffield EaglesChallenge Cup triumph in 1998, when the South Yorkshire side beat the mighty Wigan to claim the trophy, is viewed as one of the biggest upsets in the history of rugby league.

Perhaps fittingly, given that one of his teams produced a shock of that magnitude, Kear’s philosopy of coaching is based around collective endeavour and improvement.

“My philsophy of coaching has always been that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” he said.

“It’s about integrating each person within your group so that they feel valued, they feel they contribute, and they know exactly their role within the team.

“That’s basically my philosophy and my belief, and it’s stood me in decent stead for a fair few years.

“I read a great deal. I’m always trawling the internet now for sporting science.

“I love reading about people like Jose Mourinho, and I enjoy looking at other sports as well.

“I’ve been through that, where I’ve been over to Australia and had a look at their coaching systems and structures over there, and I’ve done a Level Four Diploma, which involves interaction with other sports.

“When you can continue to develop, to grow and to acquire knowledge, when you stop learning, you stand still, when you stand still, you go backwards.”

 

Kear also thinks it is crucial that rugby league continues to develop in countries other than England.

The way in which the Wales team, which Kear coaches, has developed over the last two years is something of which he is particularly proud.

“I think it’s crucial that we do [develop in other countries],” he said.

“And I also think it’s crucial that it’s homegrown players that represent them too.

“That’s what makes me particularly proud about our achievements with Wales, because in the team that ran out and clinched the European Championship title over in Ireland there were 12 homegrown players, four through heritage and just one through residency.

“That is, for me, is the proper mix.

“I do think it is important to develop it internationally, but I also feel it’s very important that it’s homegrown internationals who are used there in these developing nations.

“They should have some resources put into them to help with development too.”

Teacher, thinker, successful coach, winger. John Kear has had some rugby league career. The game he loves continues to throw up new challenges and Kear is up for them, as he will find at Belle Vue next year.

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